Toshiba's Not-So-Potent Portege

This laptop's MacBook-like design and handy tablet mode can't make up for its woeful battery life and high price

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Nice design; e-mail and battery alerts even when computer is closed; bright display; elegant hinge

The Bad: Expensive; short battery life; lacks internal CD drive

The Bottom Line: Buyers on a budget may want to look elsewhere

Being a longtime admirer of tablet PC technology, I jumped at the chance to test the Portege R400-S4931, Toshiba's first laptop packed with Microsoft's (MSFT) new Vista operating system. I give the machine high marks for its performance as a traditional laptop and tablet PC. But I take issue with its high price, especially considering its smaller hard drive and less powerful Intel (INTC) processor than in comparable machines.

Don't be surprised if at first glance you confuse the Portege R400 with an Apple (AAPL) MacBook; the similarities are undeniable. The Portege's lid and keyboard are white, while the rest of the computer is black. Its dimensions (12 in. wide, 9.43 in. deep, and 1.26 in. high) reinforce the Apple comparisons.

But the Portege stands on its own merit. The R400 has a 12.1-in. backlit LED widescreen display, making video and daily tasks easy on the eyes. The base also boasts the Toshiba Edge Display, a tiny screen that has indicators of battery life, wireless availability, and e-mail alerts, even when the laptop is closed.

Power for the Price? Nope

Flip it open for a real test of the Portege's capabilities. I took the machine to a meeting and my neighbor's eyes bulged as I twisted the Portege's screen 180 degrees and folded it down over the keyboard. Voila. The move automatically converts the Portege to tablet mode.

Writing on the screen wasn't as strange as I expected, and within a few sentences, I was taking notes as if with pen and paper. One thing to note, the R400 is not touch-screen ready, so try as you might, your finger won't work. I was pleasantly surprised that, thanks to improvements in Windows Tablet software, my messy handwriting was quickly and nearly flawlessly transferred to text. Another improvement in the software lets me use the pen much as I would a mouse. A quick stroke—or, as Microsoft calls it, a flick—of the pen and I could quickly navigate Web pages, delete text, and edit photos.

So why not a higher rating? The R400-S4931 will set you back $3,499. For that, I expected more under the hood than a 1.2-GHz Core Duo Processor and an 80-GB hard drive, especially when competitors are selling tablet PCs with similar specifications for a fraction of the price. Take the Lenovo ThinkPad X60 Tablet, for example. It boasts a 100-GB hard drive and a 1.83-GHz Intel Core Duo Processor, yet it is sold for $1,823. The Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) Pavilion tx1000us Entertainment Notebook PC comes with a 160-GB hard drive and goes for $1,299.

Battery Drain

Other tablets in the R400 family are sold for a lower price, although they are still quite pricey. The R400-S4831 sells for $2,599 and the R400-S4833 for $3,149.

On top of this, the Portege does not have an internal CD drive. While an external CD drive was made available for my review unit, I would have favored the internal version.

Another concern is battery life. If tablet PCs are designed to be more flexible and mobile than their standard cousins, why does the Portege not have a respectable battery life? I tested the Portege in a number of different environments and was consistently disappointed. After watching the movie Airplane!, which clocks in at 87 minutes, the machine needed a date with the charger within minutes. With everyday tasks, the Portege's battery life was a bit closer to two hours 15 minutes, but still well below what it should be. Reports say Windows Vista sucks up power, and no doubt the Edge Display saps its share of energy. No wonder my review unit came with a second computer battery.

So as stylish and capable as the Portege may be, for that price it could stand more razzle-dazzle. If you're in the market for a tablet PC and don't have cash to burn, you may want to consider other models.

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